F ascinated by time and the interplay between nostalgia and looking to the future, design duo David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem created their eponymous studio David/Nicolas in Beirut in 2011 and it has become know for their signature "retrofuturistic" aesthetic. Here they discuss their varied inspirations, working together and their Lebanese roots.
You have bases in Beirut and Milan – how would you compare the design scene and style of each city?
These two scenes are very different in every kind of way. We think that the Lebanese scene is mostly revolving around crafts and experimentation; somehow it evolves around some questions that are more fundamental like identity, traditions and statements. It is imperative to take into consideration the context of Lebanon for the last 20 years.
Meanwhile the Milanese scene is more focused on different factors like the fine line that separates fashion or art from design, or how a new art director can totally change the direction of a furniture brand. Milan is a melting pot of people from different backgrounds and different countries, and today, it does not seem to ask itself about its identity or its place in the world. Those questions have been answered long ago by all of the masters of Italian design. We believe that having the chance to be in both cities is essential for our work – it helps us ask our own questions in a different language and share those questions with the world.
You met while studying Interior Design at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. Did your aesthetics immediately align? How do your respective approaches work together?
Well to be honest, we first became friends and started helping each other out for our studies. Nicolas used to take David’s drawing during drawing classes and just scan and retrace them! We started working a little bit with each other on some projects at university and shared the same vision. We knew we were going to end up opening our own practice. During our Masters, we were already collaborating on our final project and we believe our friendship led us to take that chance and support each other. In 2011, after our Masters we started working on some things together, and that eventually became a full-time studio.
"Even our creative processes are very different: David tends to sketch a lot and Nicolas is more narrative – he prefers to write everything down, even the way the object looks"
Our relationship is built around trust. We always push each other forward and that gives us some solid ground. Being 100% transparent – when we work, we say things in the rawest most direct possible way. We don’t pick our words carefully and couldn’t care less if it might seem offensive: if one of us is not convinced, then there is no way of letting it happen. That can be tricky sometimes. We are both very stubborn and we like to fight for what we believe in so often we just clash for a couple of minutes and then take a step back in order to find a right balance. Even our creative processes are very different: David tends to sketch a lot and Nicolas is more narrative – he prefers to write everything down, even the way the object looks (yes he is a bad sketcher!). It’s both processes that come together and evolve into an object that is revised over and over to reach the point where we are both convinced of every single detail.
Your work is often described as “retrofuturism”. What does that mean?
Our work revolves around time. It is the key to so many different things and we try to integrate this notion of time in what we do, and hope it gives the users somewhat of a nostalgia. A feeling that is definitely not materialistic but a kind of familiarity with an object they have never seen before whilst bending towards a futuristic approach to materials and finishing.
Your first solo show was inspired by your grandmothers – what did you learn from your families about creating spaces?
We first started our studio in Milan and then moved to Portugal to work on our collections for Vista Alegre. Coming back to Lebanon was a decision we took and it was (naturally) a little bit hard for us. We were looking for purpose. Understanding where we come from has a great deal to do with where we see ourselves going. It’s that time in life where you question everything (our mid-twenties), finding ways to describe your vision, your identity. Lebanon is culturally very diversified; product design was still quite a new profession and there was room for us to explore locally and share new aesthetics.
Loulou/Hoda – the exhibition – was a way for us to create the nostalgia of what used to be while looking forward. It was a very emotional exhibition for us and others. We still remember the lady who was crying at the show, saying we brought back so many memories. It was really moving and it somehow gave meaning to all of this.
The collection was built around creating spaces, it was our starting point. We reimagined all the major pieces that come together in any Lebanese grandmother’s home. It was our way of seeking an identity that was built before the war and that was always a clear melting pot of pieces that come from different places, that can only coexist in that specific space.
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What other influences have inspired your work? Perhaps that people might not expect?
To answer that question, we will need to take you back to our last solo show, Supernova at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in which we bring two distinct bodies of work that explore different sides of our practice. Both are an interpretation of a post-explosion phenomenon. A Supernova is the death of a star which results in either a black hole or a new-born star. Here, death is only a transformation; it outshines everything else and evolves into a new life. It reminds us of Beirut, this city that was reborn over and over again – a place where time and space are different, where beauty is in the small things or even in the memories of it.
Our inspiration is built upon our fascination with time and the universe, to create an ensemble that speaks to the beauty of regeneration. Selecting inspirational touchstones that range from oriental geometry, to antique furniture, robots, space travel, lost civilizations and the music of Daft Punk. We are inspired by the transformative nature of the celestial body through materials that evoke concepts of both form and void. Sometimes our work is centered around the representation of large masses of dense matter, while at other times we find inspiration in the new life of a star. Our work revolves around the relativity of perception and how such a phenomenon can be interpreted into palpable matter.
You work with a lot of different types of materials – how do you choose what is right for a project and do you enjoy mixing them?
Mixing materials is both the result of a technical need and the research of perfecting the joins between different matters. We love seeing these materials come together to form one object – the way they are built is as important to us as the overall aesthetics. With time we have also started experimenting with working on objects that are formed by one material only and we noticed that we tend to take that opportunity to create different textures in that material. We are always looking to create a balance of textures, finishes or colours, by exploring the power of contrasts.
How do you each approach interior design in your own homes and the spaces you personally inhabit?
Our homes and spaces are thought through in the same way as the interiors we do for our clients. The main idea is to create spaces that we are in love with and that do not seek the satisfaction of our visitors. These spaces are generally the result of a gathering of some of our products, prototypes and pieces we purchase because we have a crush on them, without really knowing where we will place them – we always end up making space. We like our spaces to be dynamic, to evolve with time and we think of them in a way that they always have room to grow and change because we believe that any given piece of furniture should be able to create a context in which we spend time and create memories.
What makes an object collectible for you?
There are many factors that can make an object collectible, or not. Firstly, we believe that these objects should be the result of research the creator has been pursuing for some time, and be aligned with their overall vision. Another important point to take into account is the rarity of the object – its rarity in material, production technique and concept. Last but not least, the availability of the object in the market can also highly influence its demand and that is very important to control for it to become collectible.